Writers: Don’t Let Yourselves Be Exploited

Recently, a Washington, DC hairdresser was asked to do hair for someone in the public eye who was going to attend the Inauguration.

This person tried to bargain down the hairdresser’s rate and then proposed something very different than payment: “exposure.” If she would do the job for free, she could be sure her business would get PR on social media.

The hairdresser declined–and rightly so.

As a writer, I hear stories like this all the time from other writers at all stages in their careers who are asked to work for free in one way or another with the promise of that elusive (and dubious) thing exposure.  It always strikes a sour note.

I understand why people want to get something for nothing.  And it’s also not hard to see why the fantasy of exposure is so tempting to newbie writers.  People don’t know who you are yet, and nowadays everyone thinks that we’re all just one click away from becoming viral.

But unless someone incredibly famous at the level of Oprah or Ellen with amazing media access makes you an offer, you might as well pass.

Even after having published two dozen books, I still get asked to write things for free with the promise that it’s somehow going to enhance my stature in the world and make me oh-so-much better known.  As if I’m a beggar and I’ve just been waiting for that specific handout.

The offer sometimes feels insulting, but I don’t care anymore.  I know how empty the promise is, and I decline.

And so should anyone who doesn’t want to waste their time.  Writers need to value what they do.  A young writer I know was all excited about the possibility of her first invitation to do a reading to a special interest group for her debut novel and I urged her to ask for a nominal speaker’s fee.  She asked why.  Wasn’t it enough that she was going to have an audience?

I told her that being paid something would mean that the group inviting her took her seriously, and that she did the same thing herself.  It would set a standard going forward.

Writers, artists, professional of all kinds aren’t charities.  What we all do is work and it deserves recognition and respect as work unless we’re donating it to raise money for a charity.  Selling ourselves short is never a winning proposition.

Lev Raphael currently teaches creative writing at Michigan State University and has published books in a dozen different genres from memoir to mystery.

 

Quick! Stop That Runaway Character!

I’ve been doing readings from my award-winning fiction since the early 90s and one of the common questions I get afterwards is “Do your characters ever tell you what to do?” or “Do your characters ever get away from you?”

That question is a fascinating doorway into how people tend to perceive authors and the writing process–and how they want to.

writing-handsMy answer is plain: Never.  And here’s what I mean.  Everything that appears in my books, every aspect of plot, setting, dialogue, characterization, action is mine.  Hell, the punctuation is mine, or as much mine as anything can be in this life of transience.  I created it all, and even if I got advice from an editor or was inspired by other writers, the final form is mine.  The words are mine,  the rhythms are mine.  It’s all shaped by me as a writer, as an artist, consciously and unconsciously.

My characters are not independent of who I am.  They don’t speak to me: I speak through them.

tricking-the-readerSaying a character surprised me is dramatic, but it’s not accurate.  I surprised myself.  Something was churning away inside, some unexpected connection got made that changed what I was working on.  This happens constantly when we write: a mix of editing and revision and creation at the sentence level and the chapter level.

But many writers love to grin and say, “Yes” in answer to the question above, and then they tell dramatic stories that make audiences smile and even laugh.  It seems to confirm something to non-writers about what it’s like to write; it makes the whole experience more romantic and glamorous than it actually is.  And casts authors as at least mildly eccentric, and not entirely in control of themselves or their work when the truth is completely different.

Once I was nearing the end of a book and realized I had the wrong person committing murder.  It wasn’t the murderer speaking to me, or the victim piping up, or even the gun giving me advice. It was the mind of a writer spinning straw into gold. And after a long and fruitful career, I’m glad those moments keep coming.

Lev Raphael is the author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Michigan Book Awards Discriminate Against LGBT Books

Every year since 2004 the Library of Michigan has publicized as many as 20 Notable Michigan books “reflective of Michigan’s diverse ethnic, historical, literary, and cultural experience.”

notable bookBut that diversity seems to have a huge gap. No book with major LGBT content has ever been among the books annually celebrated and publicized statewide. That fact was confirmed to me by one of the judges, who had no explanation.

The 2016 Library of Michigan press vaunts the 2015 awards this way:

“The MNB selections clearly demonstrate the vast amount of talent found in writers focusing on Michigan and the Great Lakes region,” State Librarian Randy Riley said. “The list continues to offer something for everyone – fiction, short story collections, history, children’s books, politics, poetry and memoirs.”

great lakes regionThe awards program actually stretches all the way back to 1991 under different names. It sponsors statewide author tours for the winning authors, so it’s a big deal. The Detroit Free Press describes what it mean to be a winner:

While no cash award comes with making the list, there is a real economic reward for writers and publishers in terms of increased sales. Emily Nowak, marketing and sales manager at Wayne State University Press, said appearing on the list can lift sales by several hundred copies. For regional titles with small press runs of between 1,000 and 3,000 copies, that’s a significant boost and could push a title into a second printing. Many Michigan libraries often buy multiple copies of books that appear on the list.

And then of course there’s the free publicity, which has no valuation, and the invitations to speak that an award generates, and the prestige.

But evidently since 1991 there hasn’t been a single book with major LGBT content published by a Michigan press or written by a Michigan author living here or elsewhere worthy of recognition.

Think about it: No notable LGBT books by talented queer Michigan authors in almost twenty-five years the judges of this program thought deserved being honored. Not one. The Library of Michigan’s web site claims that the awards “help build a culture of reading here in Michigan.” Perhaps so, but the culture being built is limited in its diversity.

Before the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, Rolling Stone rated Michigan as one of the five worst states in the country for gay rights because of hate crimes, but there are other forms of oppression, including forced invisibility.

Isn’t it well past time that the sponsors and judges of the Michigan Notable Books stepped into the 21st century, out of the darkness and into the light?  What are they afraid of?

sunrise

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

Authors: Don’t Sabotage Your Book Readings

Readings make a lot of writers nervous.  After all, we spend most of our time alone, well, alone with the voices in our head, anyway.

writing handsSo you can understand that for some of us, when we get invited to speak about our work and read from it at a book store or library or college, we goof.  We don’t choose the right excerpt, we don’t take the time to plan our remarks, we don’t practice our reading.

But the most egregious thing I’ve seen authors do is sabotage their own readings without any idea they’re doing it.  What do I mean?

Some authors will feel their best chance of establishing a bond with their audience is to start with something like, “On the way over here, I was going over about what I planned to say” or “When I was invited here today, I was wondering what you might want to hear” or even “I haven’t tried it before, but I’m pretty sure this part of the book might work.”

boratTaking people “behind the scenes” in those ways can come across as way too informal.  It’s also inappropriate. The audience doesn’t need to hear about how you put your talk and reading together or hear you share your doubts.  This isn’t a workshop about doing an event–this is the event itself.  There’s really no need to start with any kind of “process preamble.”

Then there are the authors trying way too hard to be funny. Of course, jokes or cute anecdotes are fine, but keep them short–if you go that route at all. Your work is what you’re there to represent, not your dazzling comedic personality.  Because remember at the end of the day, you’re still a writer, not Chris Rock or a talk show host whose meanderings are part of the act.  Nobody invited you for your shtik.

ellenSome authors nervously mark time.  Sharing a stage with other authors they’ll mistakenly  comment, “Well, it’s been a long night, and–”  Yes it has, but keep that to yourself and pretend everyone just got there. Or, “As the middle author of five tonight, I think I should be the one to boost your energy in case it’s flagging…”  No you shouldn’t.  What if people weren’t tired until you said it?  And if they were, your bringing it up isn’t likely to make them feel better.  Or, “I’m going to keep this short.”  Whoa!  That’ll make the audience start looking at watches rather than you.

Don’t ever take your audience behind the scenes. You need to play your part in a solo or group event without calling attention to the performance in any way–and that’s exactly what it is, a performance in front of an audience.  What you need to exemplify is the Italian sprezzatura: the art that conceals all art.  Do you want to come across as polished, or do you want to possibly come across as uncertain and even bumbling?

WizOfOzGetting things right takes a lot of time and effort.  It also takes thinking through every aspect of the event, from the nature of your audience to your goals to your own role as, like it or not, the star–or at least co-star.  The audience deserves it, whether you’re speaking to 5 or 500.

Lev Raphael has done hundreds of invited talks and readings on three different continents–and in more than one language.  He’s the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery and you can find them on Amazon.

5 Things *Not* To Do At Your Book Reading

I’m just back from reading from my memoir/travelogue My Germany in Windsor, Ontario.  I was at a fundraising event for BookFest Windsor and people asking me to sign books afterwards said they enjoyed it especially because most authors read from their books so badly.

I tend to avoid author readings myself because I’ve seen too many authors make basic, embarrassing mistakes.

istock_microphone_curtainHere are five things to avoid if you’re going to read from your book, whatever the genre:

–Don’t apologize in any way.  You may feel nervous, but you’re a performer and you have an audience.  You need to exemplify sprezzatura: the art that conceals all art.  Your reading should be smooth and practiced and not feel like you’re trying too hard.  The seams should never show.

–Don’t  read anything you can’t emotionally control.  If a part of your book might make you cry for any reason or even get misty-eyed, avoid it.  A reading isn’t a psychodrama.  And don’t announce that something often leaves you teary and go ahead anyway.  That can make an audience cringe.

giphy-facebook_s.jpg–Don’t keep your eyes on your book.  This may sound impossible, but it’s not.  You need to study and rehearse your reading enough times so that you’re familiar with it–almost as if you were an actor.  Then you can maintain good, consistent eye contact with your audience.  If all you do is look down, you’ll be dull.

–Don’t get over-specific about how you and when you write, or how you wrote that book before your reading.  People do like detail and do like to get to know the person behind the book, but they don’t need TMI.  The book is the centerpiece, not the really gross flu you had when you were researching it.

disgusted-mother-in-law–Don’t hog the stage if you’re on the bill with other authors.  Time your reading more than once at home, and then trim it.  If the organizer gives you twenty minutes, go for fifteen.  In situations with multiple readers, less is usually more because someone else is likely to run over.

Remember, the event isn’t all about you: it’s about your audience first and foremost.  Think about them, plan for them, respect them, connect with them.  They deserve your best, whether five people come to hear you, or five hundred.

interested audienceLev Raphael has done hundreds of readings on three continents, in more than one language.  He is the author of  Writer’s Block is Bunk (Guide to the Writing Life) and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Pissy Professors

http://ransomedbeggar.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/arrogant-boss.jpg

I write a mystery series set in academia and now and then fans ask me, is it really that bad?  Are professors that selfish, backbiting, and ungenerous?  Well, obviously not all of them are, but academic culture from school to school has quirks and even  idiocies that make great material for satire.  Sometimes the behavior is egregious, sometimes it’s just ridiculous. Either way, it’s fodder for fiction.

Case in point.  At one private college where I read from one of my most successful books, I wasn’t brought in by English or Creative Writing faculty, but by another department that I won’t name.

I love readings.  I have a theater background, years of experience on radio, and I’ve done hundreds of readings on three continents. I’ve also taught workshops for writers on how to do readings, which require practice and art and thought.

Only four people turned up for this particular campus reading, and the disappointed coordinator told me that despite her efforts, whenever she brought in a speaker who writing students would naturally be interested in, English and Creative Writing professors consistently failed to do anything to promote the reading.  They didn’t encourage their students to show up.  They basically cold-shouldered the event.  Why?  Territoriality.  Apparently they feel they’re the only ones who should be inviting authors to campus.

It made me laugh, because it seemed so very typical of academic pettiness.  But it also made me sad because the writing students might have learned something and enjoyed themselves.

I never obsess about  numbers when I do a reading: 4 or 400,  the audience deserves my best, and that’s what I gave them at this college.  Too bad the small-minded English Department and its writing professors don’t do the same, don’t really care enough about their own students to point them towards opportunities right there on their own little campus.  It makes you wonder how else they may be giving students less than they deserve as they jealously defend what think is their turf and nobody else’s.